SAN JOSE, Calif. – Gonzaga will have a distinct size advantage on Saturday against its opponent, Xavier, whose largest starter is 6-foot-9 freshman Tyrique Jones.
Of course, three other NCAA Tournament teams thought their size would give them an edge against the No. 11 seed, but only the Musketeers danced their way into the Elite Eight.
No. 3 seed Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac and No. 2 seed Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen were unable to find much success against Xavier defenses designed to take them out of the games.
Xavier has relied on a 2-3 zone late against the Wildcats and are likely to do so against to contend with Przemek Karnowski and the trio of athletic bigs who surround the Bulldogs’ center.
The Musketeers beat the Seminoles with a 1-3-1 zone defense, which means quick, precise passing will be key. And the Musketeers confused Maryland late in their opening NCAA Tournament game by shifting between their zone defenses and a man-to-man.
A common postgame refrain from the losing team was that the star players tried to do too much and took bad shots, while the Musketeers successfully ran their offense.
What all this means for Gonzaga is that guard Jordan Mathews will need to continue his hot outside shooting, but the Bulldogs should get a break after dealing with West Virginia’s full-court pressure on Thursday. It will be incumbent on point guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins to recognize Xavier’s defense and adjust the offense accordingly on the fly.
The key player for Xavier is 6-foot-6 guard Trevon Bluiett, who has scored 75 points over three NCAA Tournament games and made nearly half of his 3-pointers (11-of-23).
The Elite Eight is uncharted territory for Xavier under coach Chris Mack, who has led the Musketeers to 20 or more wins in seven of his last eight seasons. To finally get Xavier to the regional semifinals, Mack had to beat No. 2 seed Arizona and Sean Miller, who coached the Musketeers the last time they made it this far in the NCAA Tournament.
While GU has advanced to the Elite Eight by holding onto late leads to survive as their opponents tried and failed to get over the hump against the top seed in the West region, the Musketeers have made hay by making late runs against teams that thought they had finally put the Cinderella team away.
The Musketeers led for only seven minutes of Thursday’s game against Arizona. They trailed by six points with 4:38 to play. But they ended the game on a 12-4 run, slaying another giant and becoming the only double-digit seed to advance to this year’s Elite Eight.
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